Tag Archives: mini-lesson

Mini-Lesson Monday: Learning Concrete Details with Independent Reading

More than any other writing, I love reading my students’ narratives. We start the year with narrative for many reasons, but my favorite is that I get to know my students faster than I can get to know them during one-on-one reading conferences or during group activities and discussions.

Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned from student stories just this week:

  • several of my male students wish they had a father who showed interest in their lives
  • a few of my girls live with their fathers because of their mothers’ poor choices
  • several boys and girls journeyed long and far, walking miles through jungles, so their families could escape oppression, rape, and murder
  • many of my teenagers have experienced heartache because of love interests, friends, and family members
  • a few are still grieving the loss of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who died from suicide
  • at least one young woman still holds anger toward her mom because of the way she handled a brother’s addiction and abuse

Personal and powerful, all of these stories matter. My goal as a writing teacher is to help my writers harness the words so emotion reigns in the heart of the reader. The problem?

Abstract language.

Objectives — Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Show understanding of the terms abstract vs. concrete; in your independent reading books, identify concrete details and figurative language; analyze the effectiveness of the author’s language; revise your writing to include fresh concrete details and figurative language as you create a text that evokes powerful emotions.

— Before the mini-lesson, students have already drafted a few pieces, narratives or poems. I abstractconcreteusually do the mini-lesson after silent reading time, but for this lesson I begin before because I want to give students a specific purpose for reading.

First, I write on the board ABSTRACT and CONCRETE and we review what these terms mean when it comes to writing. I try to use only abstract words as they begin to discuss this with me.

“Awesome, you might get it,”

“Wonderful, I think you know what I mean,”

“Hey, that’s pretty good…”

Eventually, they will pick up on what I’m doing, and we make a list of abstract words. Then I give each table-group a word and challenge them to come up with a concrete description that shows us that abstract word. They get 1-2 minutes, and then we share out as I write the concrete details on the board. We discuss the difference in how an author can create emotion.

Next, I ask students to pay attention to the concrete details in the book they are reading, and I give them each a sticky note. “As you read today find at least one sentence where the author does something really clever with concrete details and/or figurative language,” I say.

Students read for 15 minutes, pen in hand, paying particular attention to the author’s craft. When time is up, I ask students to share their sentence in small groups and to analyze the effectiveness of the author’s word choice.

AllieTate“Think about what he’s trying to do there. Why did he mention the color of the sweater, or the smell of the breeze?” If they feel like the author’s accomplished creating emotion, they put the sticky on the board (or as in the photo here –poster).

Students need to not only recognize the details and know that they create some kind of imagery, they need to think about how effective the word choice is for what the author is doing at that moment in the story. If I can get them to start thinking about this, I can get them to begin making purposeful choices in their own writing.

Next, I ask students to search their own writing for concrete details that create images and to add a lot more. “Where can you add a phrase or line similar to what you found in the book you are reading? Is there somewhere you can add color or shape or texture?”

And we revise.

Follow-Up — When students immediately apply learning we’ve practiced using their personal reading materials, they begin to see the connections between becoming active readers and purposeful writers. This is the kind of lesson I do again and again with a different literary or grammar skills students to master. Next up:  subordinating conjunctions.

A few lines from students’ published narratives:

“Each body turned to watch as the green army, blurry, entered the gate. The ground only knew sadness and the sky transformed into a dark night, roaming like a lion.” –Tha Sung

“My first impression when I met Lucila:  petite, chunky, short red-velvet hair, wearing a sweater that covered her sins, mysterious face with a sealed silent mouth.” –Karina Rangel

“My brothers slept like angels with devilish grins.” –Geovanni Medina


Mini-lesson Monday: Pickup Lines and Leads

709bdc7d84adf63af46e2d12dffae90eEvery book has a pickup line, a sexy statement right at the beginning that either draws you in immediately or leaves you wishing for the end.

I knew that first lines could either make or break a student’s date with a book, but I’d never thought of them as “pickup lines” until I read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor. We’ve all had that one awful date; I remember one sorry soul singing Coldplay’s “Green Eyes” to me: “And honey you should know/That I could never go on without you/Green eyes.” The problem was I don’t have green eyes; they’re unmistakably blue (and he wasn’t colorblind either—I asked).

So in the spirit of bad pickup lines…and some outright phenomenal ones, an early minilesson I teach is on leads in narrative writing, how to catch a reader’s attention, and how to miss it altogether.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of opening sentences (leads) in writing. They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own leads, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: To begin the lesson, I start with a list of opening lines from past students. The sentences are at least five years old and from a different district; they have no identifying details, and they range from outright hilarious to cryptic. Independently students pick their three favorite and three least favorite; they combine these within small groups. We then compile this list on the white board, noting which sentences show up multiple times. While I jot down their observations on the board, students discuss what drew them to the leads they liked and what made them dislike other leads. This provides us with a framework for what makes a lead strong and how we can model this in our own writing. If there is anything they have missed, I take the time to add it in at this point, backing it up with an example.

Following the discussion, I share Thomas Foster’s explanation of an opening page: “We’re being asked to commit a lot of time and energy to an enterprise with very little in the way of guarantee of what’s in it for us…The opening of a novel is an invitation to come inside and play. The first page, in this context, is not so much a guarantee as a promissory note: ‘Hey,’ it says, ‘I’ve got something good here. You’ll like it. You can trust me. Give me a whirl.’ And that’s why the very first line is so important” (How to Read Novels Like a Professor 21-22). I reinforce that we’re are creating this atmosphere for our own readers by convincing them that our story is worth their time and effort.

Finally, we turn to our own independent reading books, looking at the first line on the first page (or if they’d like the first line of any chapter). Students copy down the line in their writer’s notebooks, recognizing what about the lead makes it strong, weak, exciting, or lackluster. We come back together to discuss their findings once again before breaking into writer’s workshop.

Follow-Up: At the beginning of the year, students complete a snapshot narrative followed by a longer personal narrative. Using the mentor examples or the mentor lead from their independent reading book, students can explore multiple ways to write or revise the lead of their story. Based on this minilesson, they can also trade stories and provide peer feedback to one another

What are some narrative mini-lessons you use to kick off the year? Share in the comments!

Mini-Lesson Monday: Read Like A Writer

B9qMI_GIMAEriTZEstablishing the structure of the readers and writers workshop is one of the things I’m most excited about for the beginning of the school year.  The way these early lessons are structured will make all the difference in the way students view our work, our time, and our goals as a team of learners.  As such, “reading like a writer” is one of the earliest mini-lessons I teach when we return to school.

Objectives – Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels:  Make observations about how a writer conveys what he conveys; Apply what you learn to your own writing.  Or, from the Common Core:  Analyze how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

Lesson – My students and I begin this lesson by discussing the notion of apprenticeship.  Many of them are studying a trade–electrical work, HVAC, autobody repair, etc.  They are able to quickly explain that an apprentice studies a master in order to learn how to master a particular set of skills.

I then share with students Katie Wood Ray’s excellent description of writing being a craft apprenticeship:  “Like any other craftspeople, professional writers know that to learn their craft, they must stand on the shoulders of writers who have gone before them” (Wondrous Words, pp. 10-11).

Next, I invite students to turn to their newly-selected choice reading books and open to the first page.  I work beside them, opening my own book.  “Usually when I start a book, I’m mostly paying attention to who the characters are, when and where the book is set, and all of those usual details,” I say, thinking aloud, modeling my process.  “Now, I want to re-read this first page of chapter one and pay attention to how this story is written, instead of what the story is about.  I want to learn from this writer.”

We re-read, and after a few minutes, I ask students to talk with their tables about what they’ve noticed.  After some time, I model once more my process.  “I’m just going to take one skill I noticed this writer using and try to name it.  This particular writer is using lots of repetition here on page one–see how the beginnings of all of these sentences look the same?”  I’m pointing to the writing, displayed on the document camera.  “I like how the repetition draws my attention to what comes next in those sentences–I think it might be important.  I’d like to use repetition in my personal narrative.”  I invite students to name one craft move that they might also use in their personal narratives, and to jot that skill down in their writer’s notebooks.  They use each other as resources if their own books didn’t offer anything they felt truly drawn to.

Follow-Up – Following the mini-lesson, we’ll move into writer’s workshop.  At the beginning of the year, we’re crafting personal narratives, and we’ll study a variety of mentor texts to help us understand the possibilities of what that genre might look like.  As we do, I’ll continue to reinforce the idea of reading like writers–apprentices to the craft of writing.

What are some of your earliest mini-lessons? Share in the comments!

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